Question: what do Miles Davis, Mick Jagger, Muhammed Ali, Neil Young and Alicia Keys have in common? Answer: they’ve all had their portraits taken by William Coupon. Harley Anderson has met an extraordinary portrait photographer. Seize this opportunity to learn some of his secrets.
If you talk to William Coupon about his work long enough, the phrase “keeping things simple” inevitably comes up. Simplicity runs rampant in William Coupon’s world. His photographs, be they studio still-lifes or the bold portraiture he’s best known for, embody simplicity in a number of ways.
Before going digital, Coupon’s camera of choice was a twin-lens Rolleiflex with a fixed normal lens – the epitome of simplicity and the camera of choice for many of the best portrait photographers of the past half-century. Though he has long parked his Rolleiflex and transitioned to a Canon EOS system, William Coupon still approaches his work with the same sense of discipline he acquired when he first learned his craft.
The term simplicity can be equally applied to Coupon’s chiaroscuro-style lighting formula, a signature lighting style that has manifested itself in the form of 20 covers of Time Magazine, including all of the presidents from Nixon to Bush II. Other notables who have sat before Coupon’s handmade mottled backdrops include Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, Secretary of State George Shultz, Elie Wiesel, Banazir Bhutto, Yasser Arafat, Kofi Annan, and Prince Phillip.
William Coupon’s list of commercial clients, which is equally noteworthy, includes Nike, Titleist, HP, Rolex, FedEx, Transamerica, Ford, Japan Airlines, Searle, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Apple, and Maxell. He’s also shot on assignment for The Robbin Hood Foundation, Merrill/Lynch, The Washington Post Company, Morgan Stanley, Harvard University, The NY Times Company, McDonnell Douglas, and Johns Hopkins University.
Presidents, celebrities, and blue chip clientele aside, some of Coupon’s most compelling work is his long-term ‘Tribes & Subcultures’ project, which beautifully captures peoples of cultures we might not otherwise ever see, posed with the same sense of dignity and respect as Coupon would bequeath nobility. “My goal when I started (out) was to photograph everyone in the world. I got off to a pretty good start, but it has taken a bit longer than I thought to complete.”
The same style and design formula carries over to his ‘Still Boxes’, ‘Dolls’, ‘Digital World’, ‘Nudes’, and ‘iPhonagraphs’ portfolios, all of which can be found on his website.
Whenever possible Coupon prefers to light his subjects with a single large lightbox set at a distance that throws a balanced measure of light on both his subject as well as the handmade muslin backdrops that often appear in his signature portraits. He adds additional lights when and if needed, but the simplicity of a single soft source of light is his preferred lighting formula.
Not a big fan of smiley faces, Coupon’s subjects are often captured in pensive, introspective moments, and though eye contact is optional, when contact is made, the viewer inevitably stops and stares back.
Depending on the nature of the assignment and whether he’ll be shooting in the studio or on location, William lights his subjects with Profoto Acute2 1200 power packs and Acute/D4 Heads. On location he packs Profoto AcuteB battery packs and heads, with back-ups for all.
When talking about gear, William readily segues into ‘keep it simple’mode. “I’m not a ‘techie’ and that’s why I shoot with Profotos…they’re easy to use (and) the system works effortlessly.”
When pressed to define ‘simple’, and how it applies to his equipment, Coupon qualifies his wording by defining ‘simple gear’as equipment that “stays out of his way”, equipment that allows him to interact with his subject one-to-one with as few if any distractions as possible.
Fussy, over-designed control panels and menus aren’t Coupon’s cup of tea, and he chooses his shooting gear accordingly. “Profoto’s packs and heads are slick, modern, really easy to use, and they produce an amazing quality of light.”
Weight factors also play big in Coupon’s choice of location lighting, and the weight-to-Watt-second ratio of his Profoto Acute B battery packs make it possible for him to produce clean, studio-quality imagery in the remotest of locations, which is something William Coupon does somewhat regularly. “The original portable battery packs were monstrously heavy, but the newest Acute B battery packs are notably lighter, more durable, and easier to travel with”compared to earlier-generation battery packs.
Durability is another key attribute of Profoto gear and Coupon is quick to point out that with the exception of the occasional mishap due to human error, he’s never had a product failure despite the rigors of non-stop air travel and man-handling. Coupon works in far-flung locales and durability isn’t something he takes lightly, or for granted.
Looking back on his years as a photographer, Coupon wryly notes how much the industry has changed since he began shooting professionally. What hasn’t changed is that to this day he’s still shooting Profoto, which is something we take pride in at the Profoto home office.
All the images in this article were shot with the same lighting setup. You’ll find the lighting diagram below.
See more of William’s work at his website.